Jewish people they say, have much in common with Kashmiri Pandits ~ long noses, sharp eyes and often enough of intellect. However, what they really share is a history of oppression, where, faced with constant extinction, they manage to survive.
But now in the changed times the two communities do not seem to have that much left in common. For one, Kashmiri Pandits have a very high literacy rate; the other far more crucial factor which sets the two apart is that while the Jews are rapidly expanding their country Israel, Kashmiri Pandits perceive that they are in the process of losing their land of birth ~ Kashmir. So, are they like refugees in their own country?
The government has, reportedly, over the past several years provided jobs to around 1700 Kashmiri youths under the Prime Minister’s Relief and Rehabilitation Programme to lure back hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits who had left the valley following last year’s unrest in the wake of killing of Hizbul commander Burhanwani.
According to official figures, 62000 Kashmiri migrant families, mostly Pandits, are registered with the government ~ 40,000 in Jammu, 20,000 in Delhi and the remaining 2,000 in other parts of the country.
In fact, their crisis began in December 1989 with the gunning down of P N Bhat, a freelance journalist, and an advocate in Anantnag town in broad daylight and, subsequently, of Director of the Srinagar station of Doordarshan and another Kashmiri Pandit youth.
Till April 1990, however, at least 19,580 families of Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs and non-Kashmiri Hindus had migrated to Hindu-majority Jammu city from the strife-torn, Muslim dominated Kashmir valley following threats to their life and property. It was not the first time the Pandits had fled valley. They did it first when the Afghan hordes came with Ahmed Shah Abdali, and Sikhs had to intervene and Dogras assumed power.
They did so again ~ that is why they are found scattered all over the country in job, less in business, a trait of the Pandits ~ when Partition forced them out and Pakistan occupied parts of Kashmir.
In retrospect, Kashmiri Pandits have been living as a besieged community since the beginning of Muslim rule in Kashmir in the middle of the 14th century.
Sikandar, the fourth ruler of the dynasty founded by Shah Mir, a Khorasani adventurer who usurped the throne of Kashmir in 1339, confronted the people with the choice between conversion and death.
A few Hindu families, mainly Brahmins, escaped and took refuge in the Hindu kingdom of Jammu across the Pir Panchal range of the Himalayas.
They returned to Kashmir in the reign of Zain-ul-Abdin, who is still remembered as the Badshah or great king. The present day Kashmiri Pandits are supposed to be their progeny. Some of the Kashmiri Pandits who had picked up Arabic and Persian prospered under the Mughals.
But things changed after Islamic fanaticism began to run riot under Aurangzeb. Pressure began to be put on Hindus to embrace Islam.
Some of them related their tale of woe before GuruTegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru. The supreme sacrifice by Guru Tegh Bahadur and his three companions at Chandni Chowk in Delhi under Aurangzeb’s orders raised their morale and they preserved their religion against heavy odds.
The Afghans took over Kashmir from the Mughals in 1752 and it remained a province of the Kingdom of Kabul for the next six decades.
Under their rule many of the Kashmiri Hindus were forced to migrate to Delhi and Agra in search of a living. In fact, it was Muhammed Shah, a later Mughal ruler of Delhi, who decreed that they be called “Kashmiri Pandits” to distinguish them from local Brahmins.
In 1819, Maharaja Ranjit Singh conquered and annexed Kashmir and made it a separate province of his expanding Kingdom ruled from Lahore in 1846. Maharaja Gulab Singh added Kashmir to his kingdom of Jammu and made Srinagar the winter capital of the vast state extending from the Punjab plains to China and Tibet.
Kashmiri Pandits did occupy a place of pride in Kashmir during the 100 years of Dogra rule, making the best use of facilities for higher education and improved communications with the rest of the country.
With Maharaja Hari Singh’s accession to India in October 1947 began a new chapter in the chequered history of Kashmir, Pandits had started cooperating with Sheikh Abdullah after 1939 when he converted his Muslim Conference into the National Conference.
But Sheikh developed a distrust for the loyal Pandits soon after he came to power in the wake of the accession to India. They refused to stand by him in his endeavours to make Kashmir an independent state.
So, from 1947 onwards, they have been marginalised, discriminated against, persecuted, humiliated, attacked and driven out in a systematic manner.
The Kashmiri Pandits were bound to leave their hearths and homes in the valley to have uprooted themselves for a group fear of destruction or because of actual threats, or because they found it impossible to live in the suffocating environment of fundamentalism.
Although not such an endangered species as the Parsis, it may be taken for granted that the exclusive identity of the Kashmiri Brahmin has maximum security only on his ancestral soil of which he has remained an organic part for centuries. His tradition, customs and way of life have not wholly survived migration.
Lest our concern for the future of the indigenous Kashmiri Brahmin be taken as a sense of narrow loyalty or a futile exercise in shedding tears over what is perhaps inevitable, let us confess that our concern would be no less if the Ayengars of Tamil Nadu or the Bengalis of West Bengal were forced out to become refugees in the distant Himalayas to save their lives and livelihoods.
True, the government has lately identified separate enclaves for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits. But the question is ~ will not this action make the Pandits more vulnerable as and when the situation in the valley might deteriorate for any untoward reason?
One must not think of human beings solely as ethnic specimens worthy of being preserved in territorial museums only as attractive historical relics. But neither should one become indifferent to the prospect of extinction simply because the threatened species is represented by a handful of people in the vast national ocean that is India.
(The writer is former Associated Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata)